The Fourth Grade Project

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Installation view of archival pigment prints from The Fourth Grade Project by Judy Gelles, in the exhibition Overlap: Life Tapestries on view at Pen + Brush, New York. Photograph by Adam Zucker

Students from around the world are the subjects and co-collaborators of an ongoing participatory artwork and educational experience titled The Fourth Grade Project. The project was initiated by Judy Gelles, a contemporary artist who works as a photographer. Gelles travels internationally to visit with students in their schools, and have a dialogue about their life experiences. The students are only a decade old but they have incredible insight about the world around them. Gelles photographs the students in rear perspective view, so that they remain anonymous. The final prints include verbatim text juxtaposed with each student’s portrait. The text tells their personal narratives, which were prompted by three questions: Who do you live with? What do you wish for? What do you worry about?

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Judy Gelles, Lived Closer: USA California Private School, archival pigment print. Photograph by Adam Zucker

The eloquent responses to these questions reflect the students’ sociocultural understandings. Each student has a unique perspective regarding how they see themselves in the scope of the human condition. While there is diversity in their responses due to the different geographical regions they represent, the stories they share signify several commonalities. They worry about themselves and their family; feel stressed about their performance in school and/or in social and athletic settings; and contemplate the future. They also express their aspirations for happiness and success. All children deserve to feel safe and valued in their schools, families and communities. The Fourth Grade Project makes it clear that this is not the case for all school aged children around the world. Too many students are worried about violence and sociocultural woes affecting them, their classmates and their families. An essential question for us to collectively address is how to bridge the social, cultural and economic gaps that create inequitable situations within society?

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Judy Gelles, Be Murdered, South Africa: Public School, archival pigment print. Photograph by Adam Zucker

The Fourth Grade Project is being utilized as a way for students across the globe to feel empowered expressing themselves and learning about one another. In doing so, they will make connections between their own stories and those of other students. Gelles is working with educators and administrators in Philadelphia to create a curriculum that can be implemented in schools throughout the world. What Gelles and the classroom teachers have noticed, is that giving students the agency to express themselves via the three aforementioned queries, benefits their participation and involvement in school. Students were struggling to make connections between their lives and the required reading, which impacted the development of their literary and writing skills. By making stories relatable to their social, emotional and cultural experiences, students were passionate about reading and writing. As a result of participating in the project, both quantitative and qualitative assessments of the students’ work supported their individual growth in English Language Arts (ELA). Furthermore, by reading the students’ stories, teachers and administrators gain significant insight into the myriad of social issues affecting their students. Due to overcrowded schools and large class sizes, it is often difficult for educators to spend enough time with each student to have dialogues about their lives outside of school. This project enables teachers to learn more about what personal concerns might be affecting a student’s performance in class. In addition to this dialogue being beneficial for educators to gain greater understandings about their students, classmates also gain insight into their peers’ innermost feelings. These compassionate responses build a more empathetic environment where everyone in the school works together and is supportive of each other’s physical and emotional space.

Understanding one another and being able to show empathy for what others are enduring is a major lesson that the arts can teach us (see: Exhibiting Empathy and Educating Through Art). Through social and emotional learning and reflections on personal and collective experiences, The Fourth Grade Project has the potential to help students grow academically and personally.